The head of the UK organisation responsible for identifying and removing child abuse content from the internet said it is facing “a war of attrition” to clamp down on illegal images.
Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), said advances in technology meant they were “better at finding it” but called on people to “think about their own behaviour online”.
It comes amid concerns over increased exposure to online grooming and inappropriate content, with greater numbers of people – including children – spending a longer amount of time browsing the internet while in lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Ms Hargreaves told the PA news agency: “Nobody knows how much of this content is out there.
“The challenge for us is that as more people go online across the world, more content is shared, so it feels like it’s increasing day by day.
“People say it’s a needle in a haystack. Our response is, we are getting better at finding it because we have more technology.
“Essentially, it’s a war of attrition – but every image we take down stops that child being re-victimised.”
The IWF dealt with a record number of online child sexual abuse reports in 2019.
Analysts at the charity processed some 260,400 reports in the last year, an increase of 14% from 2018 when it looked into 229,328 cases.
Of these, 132,700 reports were found to contain images and/or videos of children being sexually abused, an increase of 26% on the previous year.
Ms Hargreaves said: “The majority of the content we see is a duplicate – the same images, recycled and shared all the time.
“In one case, we saw the same image of the same girl shared 70,000 times.
“Five years ago it was like whack-a-mole – if you put the image up, we take it down.
“Now we’re much more advanced with technology.
“The old-fashioned way is attacking the supply, disrupting the distribution.
“But we are trying to stop the demand, stop it being uploaded in the first place.
“We are trying to develop a zero-tolerance approach to this – if you don’t look at it, there won’t be a demand for it.”
Earlier this year, the Government published its first response to a consultation around its online harms White Paper, released last year, and set out its plans to empower Ofcom to hold internet companies to account if they fail to protect users from harmful material.
The White Paper proposed stricter regulation for online companies, including large fines and personal liability for executives of firms found to be in breach of a statutory duty of care.
Ms Hargreaves said the global nature of the internet – where different jurisdictions have different laws on hosting illegal content – meant it was difficult to completely get rid of child abuse online.
She said: “We are dealing with an international issue, so every country is at a different stage with how it tackles this.
“We will never eradicate it unless we get law enforcement, government and industry working together across every single country.
“But we need to make people aware that it isn’t a victim-less crime.
“People need to think about their own behaviour online and not seek out child abuse and to report it if they stumble across it.”